I attended the virtual Bar Leaders’ Forum of the International Bar Association on 19 May 2021. We had a very interesting discussion on the future of the mode of international conferences - after the pandemic, should we go back to the conventional face-to-face mode, continue with the online mode as what we have been doing since the outbreak of COVID-19 or adopt a hybrid format combining the physical and online modes?
The debate about remote versus physical is relevant not only to conferences, but also generally to work policies in the long term. Views vary among different sectors. Some social media giants foresee a permanent all remote-workforce policy while some Wall Street banks are pushing for employees to return to work in the office by the summer.
The arguments broadly fall into 4 categories, namely, interaction/communication, cost, time and support.
It has always been said that over 70% of all communication is non-verbal. For effective communication, the facial expressions, body movements, posture, gestures, eye contact and tone of voice cannot be ignored. However, these non-verbal cues are easily missed in exchanges by electronic means, compared with face-to-face meetings. Watching the grid screen continuously, coupled with occasional disruptions owing to technical glitches, erodes concentration and substantially reduces the effectiveness of communication.
Getting together in person creates the opportunities for informal social interaction. It is the face-to-face exchanges that take place spontaneously when we walk past each other in the corridor or make ourselves a drink at the coffee machine that build mutual trust, inspire collaboration and contribute to the work culture. For professional training that adopts the apprenticeship model like the legal profession, training and mentorship done remotely via a virtual platform is a challenge. Unless technology can facilitate similar opportunities for junior staff to observe and learn from their seniors, for colleagues to interact socially and spontaneously, and for conference participants to network and develop connections, there will always be a missing piece in the remote mode that makes it inadequate.
With respect to cost, moving everything online saves major overhead costs like office space. However, the IT infrastructure costs including cyber security training to support the remote mode must be taken into account.
One unbeatable quality of the online mode is that it transcends geographical limitations. It opens up new horizons and enables the reaching out to people who are not otherwise reachable in a physical setting. For example, talent can be hired, and participants can be enrolled for conferences, globally. The time saved by less travelling to the office, or to the conference venue, result in enhanced efficiency and cost reduction. However, as the line between home and office disappears, the working hours quietly intrudes deeper and deeper into the “home” hours when emails keep coming in at odd hours and meetings are held around the clock to accommodate jurisdictions of different time zones around the world. The impact on work-life balance is an important factor to consider and there must be corresponding staff coaching to avoid burnout.
Apart from the IT infrastructure support (e.g., laptops, routers, printers, etc) and proper training that need to be provided to staff to support them to work remotely, consideration must also be given to whether the remote location from where they can work is suitable. This may particularly be problematic for crowded places like Hong Kong where living space is congested.
Both the physical and remote modes have their own advantages and drawbacks. The pandemic has given us the opportunity, at a high price, to experience and compare both. It falls on every one of us to reflect on the lessons learned from the extraordinary experience to cope with future challenges that come our way.
Long-term work policy is more a matter for an individual firm to consider, taking into account its own particular circumstances in its search for the right balance that suits its own needs for the future.
With respect to conferences, it is very likely that the hybrid mode will be the future trend.
A hybrid event targets to have the best of both worlds, i.e., it enables those who can attend the event physically to do so as well as provides an opportunity to those who cannot attend in person to participate in the event in no inferior way to those in-person attendees. It must therefore not simply be live-streaming a physical event to online participants to watch in a passive manner.
To meet the expectation in the post pandemic era, international events will need to have the capability to accommodate in-person attendees as well as remote participants who can, with the help of careful planning of the format of the event and advanced technological support, equally and fully enjoy the academic sessions, the interactive discussions and networking social functions.
Monthly Statistics on the Profession
(updated as of 30 April 2021):
|Members (with or without Practising Certificate)||12,378|
|Members with Practising Certificate||
10,812(out of whom 7,967 (74%) are in private practice)
|Registered Foreign Lawyers||
(from 33 jurisdictions)
|Hong Kong Law Firms||
948 (47% are sole proprietorships and 41% are firms with 2 to 5 partners, 50 are limited liability partnerships formed pursuant to the Legal Practitioners Ordinance)
|Registered Foreign Law Firms||
85 (from 22 jurisdictions, 14 are limited liability partnerships formed pursuant to the Legal Practitioners Ordinance)
|Civil Celebrants of Marriages||2,203|
|Reverse Mortgage Counsellors||448|
78 (72 in civil proceedings, 6 in criminal proceedings)
|Registered Associations between Hong Kong law firms and registered foreign law firms (including Mainland law firms)||37|